My time in Myanmar is drawing to a close now, and I’m down to fewer than three weeks in this beautiful country of contradictions. It seemed fitting, then, to return to where I started and head to Inle for a final farewell.
Rainy season skies
Catching the luxury ‘Jesus bus’ at 22:00 from Mandalay, we arrived after a stomach-lurching journey at around 5:00am into Naungshwe. First major change for me over the two years is that 5:00am no longer seems like the middle of the night, but I’m sure all that will change once I discover a social life again. We stayed at my favourite hotel in Naungshwe, and serious kudos to these guys – I hadn’t been back there for a year but they still remembered me. On reflection, I may have irrevocably etched myself onto their memories last time I was there, by crawling down to them gray faced and croaking at them plaintively to see they could feed me some plain rice whilst I focused on not dying of egg fried rice-induced food poisoning from one of the lake restaurants. They obliged, added some water, stuck it all on a tray with a pwetty flower, and never charged a penny. Myanmar customer service still surprises me, even two years later.
Gratefully we crawled into our beckoning beds to catch up on sleep missed due to the bus driver’s fundamental inability to Just. Stop. Talking. and woke feeling groggy but – hurrah! not remotely sweaty! — to a breakfast of banana pancakes drenched in glossy Myanmar honey, general fried items of goodness, plump golden pineapple, and some serious caffeine. ‘Sir you want 3-in-1 or black?’ I probably should inform them that not everyone is ‘sir’ but I was more focused on the coffee decision. Black is obviously awesome, but as anyone who has tried Myanmar 3-in-1 coffee, it has its own magical powering ability, fuelled by god-knows-what, and rumour has it that even prisoners in Insein are given a daily allowance of it. Alas, as this doom-and-gloom article states, it’s not all good news for 3-in-1, but the list of ingredients including high sugar and trans-fats hints at just how amazing this product is when one is intensely sleep-deprived and slightly mentally adrift. Still, I chose life on this occasion and went black.
Traditional boats – notably different from the tourist ones
Since it was my lovely companion’s first trip to Inle, we could hardly not do a boat trip, so we mooched up to the brown channel area which takes Naungshwe into the lake itself. Gearing up for a fight, our boat driver quoted us a very fair low-season price which we accepted without question, dodged the ladies intent on bedecking us in head-prickling bamboo hats, and ensconced ourselves firmly into the boat before it zipped off towards the lake.
Umbrellas – reminds me of Bo Sang.
I think this was probably my 8th-or-so boat trip on Inle, but it’s still breath-takingly beautiful and one of my favourite places in Myanmar. I have seen the lake in glorious sunshine, and Dementor-esque fog at Christmas time with me mother bedecked in a jaunty Santa hat, but this was a new world again, in the raw earthiness of rainy season. Rich tones of brown, red and green and a distinct lack of tourists made this a rather other-worldy experience, despite the inevitable commission-born trips to silver makers, umbrella makers, and lotus weaving longgyis.
This lady is showing lotus root – the fibre is more sought after and more expensive than silk
We chugged past bamboo huts on stilts standing precariously tall in the gently shimmering water, next to men burning and collecting in the rice harvest. Away from the gaggle of tourist high season, with so few tourist boats on the water, and none of the merry showboating of the Inle fishermen band of actors, it seemed more real, more indicative of every day life routine than last time when weather-battered fishermen had to negotiate their boats around the myriad of other tourists’ boats. People have also grown more accustomed, perhaps even weary, of tourists here: last year I was greeted with shy smiles and curiosity. This year eyes flickered to us and then back to their tasks at hand. Things are truly changing in Myanmar, both for better and worse, and I do feel privileged to have been one of the lucky foreigners to have witnessed this change at first hand in the authentic communities I’ve lived in, removed from the artificiality of the tourist industry.
Myanmar Air Hockey…
The day passed in a gentle blissfully unstressful way and we decided to return to the town for lunch, once-bitten-once-shy in terms of food consumption, and found ourselves a Shan restaurant where I enjoyed a final glorious dish of Hin T’ok and some disappointingly watered down Shan noodles which in hindsight would never live up to the glory of the Shan Kow Swe of Hsipaw (although I suspect even the Shan Kow Swe of Hsipaw wouldn’t live up to it either now I’ve magnified it into a vision of true ambrosia). Feeling a bit worse for wear after aircon bus blasting for seven hours straight, we headed to the market for my friend to pick up some souvenirs before being bum-butted by a rogue horse and escaping back to our hotel. There we spent a sedate evening of Nepalese takeaway: paneer curry, parathas, banana and chocolate pancakes, ginger lemon and honey tea, discovering our sunburn in horror (despite spending most of the trip crouching under a hot pink Justin Bieber umbrella) and blithely eschewing the raging nightlife of Naungshwe in favour of comfortable beds and the girliest girly movie in the history of ever. As I finally closed my eyes and felt the swaying of my body echoing the swaying of the boat, I left Inle drift away in my dreams like saying a bittersweet goodbye to an old friend.